Monday, December 20, 2004

The art of improvisation

I think I hit upon one of my New Year's resolutions tonight while wrapping presents and half-watching Emeril. The jolly old elf was making a bunch of rustic winter dishes, including osso buco and carrot soup with apples and caraway seeds. Apparently somebody'd been giving him a hard time about not mentioning the amounts of ingredients called for in his recipes; over and over again, he said something to the effect of, "Now throw in some sugar. How much? Depends on how sweet your pears are. You say I don't give amounts. But you don't tell me how sweet your pears are." (This was in reference to some sort of pear dessert with port and blue cheese -- the phone rang, so I didn't get the details.)

I think of myself as a good cook -- not extremely talented or inventive, but a solid home cook whose meals typically turn out well. They're simple and rustic -- no elaborate presentation or towers of veggies. But what I excel at is merely following a recipe. I can tweak it within reason to suit our tastes, but generally I just do what the recipe writer tells me. The effect is sort of like being a passenger in a car that's being driven to an unfamiliar place -- if I don't need to know how to find my own way back, I just let the details wash over me instead of retaining them.

As a result, I'm somewhat uninventive in the kitchen. Last night, for example, I made a black bean soup from Gourmet that I've made a few times before; each time, I like it less. As I began cooking, the recipe's approach seemed all wrong: First you boil a mixture of chicken broth and water -- I'd noted that the recipe called for too much water -- then you throw in diced onions, peppers and chiles. That simmers for a bit -- 10 minutes, I think -- then you add drained black beans, a bottle of Corona, cumin, coriander and salt. A few more minutes of simmering and you take it off the heat and throw in some lime juice and chopped cilantro. Top with a bit of sour cream, and it's done.

However, the final product is not so much a soup as it is a bunch of briefly boiled vegetables in a beery chicken broth. I knew that going in, and briefly considered sauteing the onions and peppers, then adding spices and beans before putting in the liquid, so the flavors could marry rather than just floating around alone. But I was short on time and irritated that it was already Sunday night, and so I just followed the recipe as written. Not wise.

We ended up with a marginally satisfactory dinner, followed by a not-very-appetizing lunch today. And there is scads of this soup left -- which, knowing me, I will find reasons not to eat and will end up pouring it down the garbage disposal. Which is not an effective use of our money or the brief amount of time I spent preparing it.

What I want is to gain some intuition in the kitchen -- to pay attention to the effects of what I'm doing so I can do a better job of improvising from a bunch of disconnected ingredients plunked down in the pantry. Our CSA share helps with this kind of thinking, but I still rely too much on recipes. In 2005, as the Internets are my witness, I'm planning to give my cooking the attention it deserves. That means writing about it more -- something I love and wish to pursue (especially in the hopes that one day I can ditch business journalism for something slightly more appealing). Because I know that by writing about it, I will be paying attention. And that is how this hamster brain of mine learns.